George Balanchine. Mikhail Baryshnikov. Rudolf Nureyev. Martha Graham. Alvin Ailey. These are mythic figures in the dance world, but for former principal ballerina Stephanie Herman, these greats were cast members in her life -- people she knew, studied under and danced with and for. Next week, at the age of 66, she will take to the stage once more in a debut performance of "Ballerina, a One-Woman Play," which she has written and choreographed to reflect her journey as a dancer.
In her show, Herman will, effectively, perform her life story -- one defined by a love for the artistry of dance, the struggle to please others and the emotional and physical hardships of working through and overcoming injuries.
Herman said that she is aiming to communicate the story of how she has had to please others in the different situations she's been in -- situations in which she "learned early to survive by doing what other people wanted and how to do what they wanted."
The cost? "If you keep doing what everybody wants, you're not really owning yourself, and so there starts to be this conflict between your mind and your soul," she said.
"So, your mind is going, 'The director said I have to do more turnout,' and 'The director said I have to get my leg up higher,' and 'The director said I have to get my passé up higher,' and 'The director said ...' You get the idea. There can be a brutal emphasis on technique in ballet, as in other artistic endeavors.
"(Meanwhile), my mind is (also) like, 'Oh, my soul feels this music so much, I just want to give my love to this music,' and the artist wants to --," Herman paused and then cut in, mimicking the other part of the dancer's mind, "'No. You have to do your pirouettes more! Higher leg!'"
Even in conversation, she dramatizes the mind's push-and-pull, so it is no wonder that later in life Herman has returned to the stage after taking acting classes. This time, though, she has the freedom to be herself -- wisdom that comes with perspective.
"What I've learned in my wise years now is -- and just recently through acting lessons -- that it's okay to be yourself," she said.
But, at the age of 19, Herman was just setting out on her journey to this realization. In 1969, she moved from New York City to Geneva, Switzerland, to be part of a company that Balanchine had started there. She described the experience as, "educational" -- emotionally and "just learning about the world firsthand and also cultural differences."
She recalled adjusting to a Swiss diet that included cheese, fondue, bread, chocolates and potatoes and, for the first time, having a "weight problem." (Later, revisiting pictures of herself during this period of life, she would laugh at the idea that she had thought she was overweight.)
It was after she had been dancing in Geneva for a few years that she sustained her first significant injury. While rehearsing, she recalled trying to do the best she could do. As a result of her efforts, she fell one way and her knee went the other way.
"Nobody knew what to do, so I took my knee and put it back in its place," she said.
She was flown back home to New York with a three-foot cast from her ankle to her thigh and advised to recuperate. "It was hard to go back home injured," she said.
She focused on getting stronger. "I felt that the only way I could get back to where I needed to be ... I had to get strong," she said. She was introduced to Pilates and "learned a whole new way of understanding the body." While recovering, she went to auditions and was told she was too tall. "'Thank you No. 15,' they would say," she said. "It was emotionally very difficult for me ... It was an identity crisis."
Nevertheless, after a couple of years, she was on a plane back to Switzerland, where Nureyev hand-picked her to dance the lead -- his mother -- in a ballet he had choreographed: "Manfred." "He believed in me, and because he believed in me, I believed in myself," she said.
Herman would spend the next seven years touring the world with the likes of Baryshnikov before moving back to New York where, once again she was faced with being "too tall" and, this time, being older, too.
Eventually, she found herself "feeling a little injured," but continued performing nonetheless. When she was asked to fill in for an injured dancer, she did it, but her spine wasn't ready for the number of backbends she had to do. She was confined to her bed and faced "with the reality of, 'Who are your if you're not a ballerina?'"
Herman's injury led her to learn more about the body. She spent her time delving through medical books and researching different approaches and exercises such as gyrotonics. After an operation in her knee didn't take her pain away, she decided to take the matter into her own hands, eventually finding that all she needed to do was to strengthen one small area of her knee and that was it.
It wasn't long before Herman was helping other people work through their injuries, creating a therapeutic program set to music called "Muscle Ballet," which she trademarked in the early 1990s. Around this time, she moved to the Bay Area with her partner and has since resided in Menlo Park.
Today, Herman continues leading workshops and working with individuals one-on-one, helping people overcome chronic pain and working with people to design a fitness regimen that works for their body. She's trademarked an educational system called "Pilates Ballet by Stephanie Herman."
"A lot of this stuff I learned from other masters -- Franklin Technique, Pilates, Gyrotonics, physical therapy, kinesiology -- and I think of myself now as a chef ... I put my own twist to it," she said. "In Pilates you learn you've got this choreography ... but when I look at a person's body and they don't fit into this format, I'll build a new choreography just for them so that they can naturopathically own what they really need to own to learn it."
In a recent workshop, participants went around the room stating what they were working on or focusing on. There was a variety of ages, stages and areas of focus in the group, including Jordan Hammond, a ballerina, formerly with the San Francisco Ballet, who was traveling from Walnut Creek to take individualized sessions with Herman after having sustained an injury to her psoas muscle.
"I wanted to find someone who understood what it's like to be a dancer and come back from injury, and there's so much mentally that you have to deal with and emotionally, too because ballet is so all-consuming, and it's really hard when you don't have that in your life," she said.
In a way, Herman's therapeutic class and her one-woman show have one underlying message: reclaiming oneself, body and soul. "I want to motivate other people to have the courage to be themselves," she said. "... The more I own who I am, the more honest I am with the audience. And, this is who I am at 66."
What: "Ballerina: A One-Woman Play"
Where: Schultz Cultural Arts Hall, Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto
When: Wednesday, Aug. 30, at 8 p.m.
Cost: $15, students (with ID); $20, members and J-Pass holders; $25, general public